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NASA culture key to Columbia shuttle disaster

"In one of its sharpest criticisms, which had not been detailed prior to the final report, the CAIB makes it clear that schedule pressure imposed by O'Keefe in order to appease the US Congress apparently played a significant role in causing managers all the way down the line to downplay risks and sweep aside clear warning signs."

http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994089

Anthony Rubin
Tuesday, August 26, 2003

It's funny when you read the article is sums up to "Congres pressure key to Columbia shuttle disaster".

Application Specialist
Tuesday, August 26, 2003

I'd rate it as NASA culture, caused by a combination of congressional pressure, reprecussions from the crash-program to the moon in the 60s, and the inevitable effects of beuracracy, which was then caused by the public apathy in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s.

So it all reduces down to the average joe on the street sucking, mostly.

The problem is that the best solution is to create a new space transportation architecture that dramatically reduces the cost of operation.  To do this, all of the shuttle contractors and NASA employees that work on the shuttle will end up unemployed, and generally NASA hasn't wanted to do that.

It will also either be incredibly expensive or not able to do everything that the shuttle can.

The other problem is that it needs to produce fruit in a few years, which NASA isn't capable of anymore.  The X-30, X-33, X-34, and several others took too long and had didn't even have very much actual flight-usable hardware for later projects.

It's the whole XP/Agile development thing applied to aerospace programs.  This is why Armadillo Aerospace actually has a chance to win the X-prize.

Flamebait Sr.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003

It's refreshing that the report was so scathing, rather than pussyfooting around the issues. It's also refreshing that blame was ascribed to the top levels of management, and not to the engineers.

Zahid
Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Yes, but I mean it is also kind of hollow too.

I mean, the original 1986 accident was a clear break down in command structure. It was too cold, the o-rings don’t work, and against recommends of some engineers, they launched. That is a break-down!

In this last accident, you can’t really say there was a break down in the decision process. I mean every single shuttle launch since the 1986 accident  had to deal with the problem of form and ice. This is nothing new. There was no decisions that said we are going to launch against the advice of the engineers. There was no break down in the command and control structure. There was NO NEW evidence from the very 1st launch to the last launch that they have some new concern. There was concern about ice/foam damage, but we had that concern since day one...nothing new on that.

There is no doubt that some lameness existed * after * the launch, as clearly there was some video evidence etc. However, lets assume we did find that a hole was punched in the leading edge of the wing? Then what? What would have been done?

We had no eva ability on that flight to fix this problem anyway. You think they can launch another shuttle to go up there and fix it?  Geesh! They also did NOT have the Canada arm which in the past HAS been used to inspect and remove ice build up on the shuttle (the waste vent on the left side has often caused ice build up of objects LARGER then basketballs). On those ice vent build up occasions, the Canada arm has been used to inspect, and break off those chunks of ice before returning to Earth. There was concern that these large chunks of ice could break of during re-entry and damage the wings. The ice build up does NOT normally occur, but on some flights it does.  Of course, this does not help the situation in this case where the damage occurred during launch.

No arm to inspect with, no EVA ability. Further, that was a old shuttle with NO docking hatch for the space station. Ok, so now you got a hole in the leading edge. If that report contains a solution to what would been done in that case, then I certainly do see a break down here. 

As far as I know, we did NOT have the ability to fix this problem after launch has occurred.

I suppose it would have been nice for the people on board to be informed that they cannot return to earth and give them a chance  to prepare for death. If you read some of the true stories about climbers on Mount Everest talking to their wives back home via radio/phone link, but with FULL KNOWLEDGE they are stuck on the mountain and WILL DIE during the night, you can only begin to imagine how horrible this is.  Some even talked to their kids, and wished them good night etc.  The kids did not know it was their dad’s last night, but the father certainly did. Rescue was impossible.

If no solution to what the astronaughts COULD have done in orbit is given, then really, that report really a bunch of hot air yelling and screaming that the culture is bad.  Oh ya, there is really a serious culture problem here. And the news papers and TV are lapping this up like a bunch of thirsty dogs. Now we hear this is due to budget limits. Yup...better use this to get more money!

I mean at what point in time did we all of a sudden conclude that ice/foam problem is bad, and why then did the shuttle EVER BE LAUNCHED?

Fact is, we believed the risk was acceptable for every other launch from day one, and NOTHING was changed.

The leading edge problem is clearly a weak spot that the shuttle has had form day one. No doubt, we NOW conclude this is a weak spot, but I can’t say that is result of poor culture.

I still have not got a clear explanation as to what we would have done if NASA did react, and review video evidence sooner, and then tell the shuttle pilots that on launch you got a hole in the wing?

From what I have read, they could not have fixed this problem after launch anyway. It is certainly tragic, but finding the hole after launch would not have helped.

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
kallal@msn.com
http://www.attcanada.net/~kallal.msn

Albert D. Kallal
Wednesday, August 27, 2003

As interesting note (I just read farther into the report), NASA did consider if a "rescue" shuttle COULD have been prepared in time before consumables like oxygen etc would run out.

Apparently, they do conclude that working round the clock, 7 days a week, that they could move down the launch time to 21 days of prep time (3 weeks of round the clock working). This would result in making the deadline within 5 days of consumables like oxygen etc running out.

So, apparently a rescue was possible.....

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
kallal@msn.com
http://www.attcanada.net/~kallal.msn

Albert D. Kallal
Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Albert: I think the real mistake was that they didn't even give the problem a chance to be solved ... they just automatically ruled out that there was nothing to be done without ever really looking at the problem.  Certainly there must have been lots of things that might have worked -- everything from sending up an emergency rescue shuttle, to quick fix engineering in space, to slowing down the reentry flight path and angle of attack to avoid wear on that part of the wing.  Apollo 13 was a very similarly doomed mission that was not abandoned simply because they thought there was nothing that could be done ...

Alyosha`
Wednesday, August 27, 2003

No, the problem was that mission management didn't realize the severity of the damage. 

And if they had realized the severity of the damage, what could be done? Sending up Atlantis on a emergency rescue? Extremely, and I mean EXTREMELY, risky. What if Atlantis was lost in the process, due to the rushed launch preparations or to the normal Shuttle operational dangers?
Now you've lost two orbiters @ $5B each, plus the crews.

Fixing the wing? There was zero facility for on-orbit close inspection of the wing, and zero materials to repair it.

Altering the reentry profile? There isn't a lot of margin; different banking schemes can alter peak heating on some shuttle surfaces by 5 or 10%, but it also raises temperatures on other parts of the ship; if you manage to save the left wing but burn off the rudder the end result is the same.

Apollo 13 was a very different situation. Mission Control was aware of the problem from the moment it happened and could deal with it. With Columbia there was no real-time telemetry to indicate the problem; if there was, they could have tried to abort, though that's extremely risky as well and could well result in the loss of the vehicle.

Mark Newman
Wednesday, August 27, 2003

See, that's what I mean though -- they didn't even bother to investigate the severity of the damage although they knew ahead of time it was likely there was significant damage to the wing.

Alyosha`
Wednesday, August 27, 2003

No, no , no! NASA *didn't* know there was significant damage to the wing.  They thought it was similar to previous foam strikes; the engineers looked at this strike and concluded it wasn't a safety-of-flight issue.

To respond to a problem, one must correctly surmise the nature of the problem. For a number of reasons, NASA didn't do that here.

Mark Newman
Thursday, August 28, 2003

First, I've read the entire CAIB report.

NASA engineers DID very accurately estimate the scope of the damage including the size of the foam and the possible damage to the leading edge tiles. NASA Management (notably Linda Ham) failed to communicate and coordinate the additional photos which could prove or disprove that estimate.

Basically, Management, under pressure from the shareholders (Congress), was being asked to provide more and more service with decreasing resources. Management gave lip service to quality (safety) but was in fact far more concerned with budget and schedule.

The engineers if asked to and allowed to do their jobs could have fullly worked on providing a repair or rescue solution.

Andy Wilks
Thursday, August 28, 2003

Andy, I think your point does make this whole matter a somewhat worse then my “glossing” over.

Given that some people DID bring up the issue, it AT LEAST should have been further pursed.

There would have been BIG risk in a rescue mission...but a worth while risk never the less. NASA does think that a rescue mission would have been worth the risk!.

NASA would be heroes beyond belief if they went for this rescue and succeeded. The down side could not be any worse then it is now!

I wondering if we can apply this lesson to software management?


Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
kallal@msn.com
http://www.attcanada.net/~kallal.msn

Albert D. Kallal
Thursday, August 28, 2003

Albert,

Can you imagine the fallout from a decision to launch Atlantis on a hurry-up schedule, and then lose it as well? No matter how noble or daring the mission, you've now lost two orbiters that can't be replaced. NASA would have been roasted alive if that happened.

Mark Newman
Thursday, August 28, 2003

I don't think so.
People are often lost during rescue missions. One sailboat with two people on it can instigate a MASSIVE search and rescue operation if the right people catch notice.

If NASA rushed a launch and tried to rescue Columbia, but failed, I simply cannot envision the US having any reaction but somber praise for the attempt. Yes, some naysayers would whine "now we've lost ten instead of fourteen" (I suspect a rescuse mission would only have a crew of three), and THEY would be the ones catching heat from the general public.

BTW, regarding remaining supplies - has anyone commented on the fact there was a loaded ISS replenishment vessel sitting on the pad ready to go in Russia? Could that have been used to provision Columbia while a rescue or repair mission was in progress?

Philo

Philo
Thursday, August 28, 2003

Philo,

ISS is in a different orbital plane and resupply ships launched by the Russians can't reach the orbit that Columbia used, at least not easily or with any useful cargo capacity.

Sending up Atlantis in a desperate rescue mission is far different than sending out one or two dozen Coast Guard cutters and helicopters. 

If Atlantis was lost, that would pretty much kill the ISS (not that it's doing anything useful anyway) since that would leave only two orbiters for resupply, crew transfer and reboost.  Progress and Soyuz can maintain only a two-person ISS crew, enough to perform station maintenance and not much else. And I'm not sure that Progress can supply enough reboost over time to keep the ISS in orbit.

Mark Newman
Tuesday, September 02, 2003

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